Thursday, June 07, 2012

Tricksy whereaboutses!

Dear AP: There are so many, many answers:

1) Toss a coin. Everybody else does
2) What does it sound like it should be?
3) Well, what if you looked it up?

Door No. 3 might lead you to a reference like the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which would tell you that (a) the "s" has nothing to do with number, (b) singular and plural verbs are both standard with "whereabouts," and (c) plural verbs appear to be more common

In other words, if you want a rule, knock yourself out. Go ahead and write one; you won't be wrong, whatever you decide. A sensible usage rule might be: OK, usually plural, but go ahead and make it singular if you're really feeling it. The world won't end either way.

What you should never -- as in, please stop wasting the time of hard-working editors -- do is invent a rule based on a nonsensical reading of the matter at hand. Why would noun-verb agreement be affected by the number of a possessive pronoun that precedes the noun?

My house is big

Our house are big

Your attitude sucks
Their attitude suck

This would seem less absurd if we weren't in the middle of the War on Editing. Time wasted on stupid questions is time diverted from the main effort. Pronouncements about bogus rules only underscore the glassholes' contention that editors are a waste of time. If this is the impression we give of editing as a craft, we should not expect editing to survive as a craft.

The AP shouldn't be wasting time on questions for which the first answer is "did you look it up?" If it must, though, it should at least avoid doing harm. Like most people in my line of work, I teach AP style as part of the basic professional toolkit. If "AP style" continues to manifest itself as a set of unintelligible, unfounded claims about some mystical grammar world, I'm going to revisit that decision in favor of some style guide that makes sense.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

What the ...?! Does AP think "whereabouts" is an adverb or something?

5:19 AM, June 07, 2012  
Blogger Darla-Jean Weatherford said...

I work with a different style guide (different line of work) that also has some truly incomprehensible "rules." I keep wondering what voodoo they use to decide what the group they serves wants or needs from its style guide; seems to me that if that is something based on good grammar, the style guide editors would themselves have checked a couple of reliable sources, or if it's based on the needs of the organization (as mine is supposed to be), they might have polled the membership to see what *they* find acceptable. But I get the impression that they draft oddball dicta after long nights at the office without a further thought as to their implications.

7:06 AM, June 07, 2012  
Anonymous Jonathon said...

"Why would noun-verb agreement be affected by the number of a possessive pronoun that precedes the noun?"

I think there's actually a decent justification here. The noun "whereabouts" is either singular or plural, and the preceding pronoun is simply a clue as to what the grammatical number is.

I'm not saying I agree with the reasoning, but there it is. Corpus searches show that the plural verb is much more common than singular with both "their" and "his" or "her". But as you said, editors need to know how to look things up and make a sensible decision for themselves when their not sure.

8:47 PM, June 07, 2012  
Anonymous David said...

In the case of their whereabouts, if is assumed that they are whereabouting together it would be their whereabouts is unknown. If you think they have scurried off in separate directions it would be their whereabouts are unknown. If you don't know you're on your own.

11:31 AM, June 08, 2012  

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